U.S. Army Special Operations combat veteran Sua Tuimaleliifano was severely injured during a firefight in southern Afghanistan in 2007. He kept fighting in the war, unaware of a broken neck and fractured vertebrae. His injuries ultimately left him paralyzed from the shoulders down.
But that hasn’t stopped Tuimaleliifano from being active in his community. He plays the role of a low pointer with the Tampa Generals — a wheelchair rugby team of civilians and military veterans with disabilities.
“I only took interest after giving it a shot and attending practice to see what’s it all about,” said the retired soldier, who joined the U.S. Army shortly after graduating from high school. “The rules made it more challenging. The risks and almost impossible tasks make it more interesting. I enjoy it a lot and am still learning as I go.”
This is his second year on the team. The Tampa Generals compete against competitors both locally and nationally. It gives the team members a chance to excel in a team sport despite their injuries.
“Until very recently, Sua had been isolated and heavily depressed,” retired U.S. Army Special Forces Lt. Col. Scott Mann said. “Now, he’s competing in the Warrior Games and is a stellar athlete.”
Mann’s non-profit organization, Mission America, supports the Tampa Generals with new uniforms, marketing, and financial assistance for expenses to participate in the 2016-17 season.
The rugby team members reach out to wounded veterans in the local Veterans Affairs hospital to find new players. “They bring the veterans back into the game of life, in spite of grievous spinal cord injuries,” Mann explained.
The sport helps him connect with other people who have spinal-cord injuries and learn about “the lives lived through it, the accomplishments and success in their stories of resilience and overcoming the many obstacles in this ‘new norm’ way of living,” Tuimaleliifano said. “I continue to learn a great deal through this amazing community of people.”
The Tampa Generals “embody what a powerful connection like this looks like for successful transition,” Mann said. “It represents exactly what transition should look like at a community level – civilians reaching out to veterans and connecting at a local level.”
Justin Stark is one of those civilian leaders on the team. He was shot at the age of 10, causing a spinal cord injury. In college, he started playing wheelchair rugby and eventually joined the Tampa Generals. He now serves as the team manager.
Stark said the majority of the veterans getting injured are “younger, in good shape, and eager to play an aggressive sport like rugby.”
“Off the court, all of us whether veteran or civilian face the same exact struggle of trying to reestablish our lives post-injury and deal with similar physical and emotional barriers,” Stark said. “It is really easy for both veterans and civilians to become isolated after their injury and begin a downward spiral of depression and health complications. Rugby has been a great support system in trying to prevent that.”
Before he started playing, Stark thought he was going to forever be dependent on others for activities of daily living and that he would never be able to live a normal life. Once he saw how his fellow teammates lived independent lives, it “opened up my eyes and showed me that I have a lot more potential,” he said.
Stark said the team will continue playing hard on the court and “making a difference in people’s lives off the court.”
Mike Monthervil, a retired U.S. Army veteran who was injured in Afghanistan, plays defense on the team. “I am fairly new to the game. It’s a boost of energy going out there playing and giving it all I’ve got,” he said.
The team typically competes in about 8-10 tournaments per year around the country. As a result, they spend about $20,000 per year to cover traveling expenses and rely on community support to cover these costs. Mann said financial support enables them to continue “doing the right thing by helping wounded veterans get back in the game.”